The Mod Squad: How to Banish Misplaced Modifiers

Mod_Squad

A modifier is a word, phrase, or clause that offers a description or identifying details of another word in a sentence. A modifier should always be placed by the word it modifies. Let’s look at some examples below to see what happens when modifiers are misplaced.

The waitress received a large tip with a smile.

The previous sentence is an example of a misplaced modifier. A misplaced modifier often causes confusion for the reader. The modifying phrase in this example, “with a smile” modifies “The waitress,” not “a large tip,” so the modifying phrase should be placed next to the word or phrase it modifies to clarify the meaning:

With a smile, the waitress received a large tip.

Sometimes, a misplaced modifier is not only confusing, but can create a ridiculous sentence, as in the examples below:

The children ate the candy they had purchased slowly.

The word “slowly” is modifying “purchased” in the sentence. So it sounds like the children had purchased the candy slowly! What the writer really means is the children were eating the candy slowly.

The children slowly ate the candy they had purchased.

 

The sentence below also sounds a bit confusing, and quite awkward:

The school children saw a fence behind the school made of barbed wire.

Because the modifying phrase, “made of barbed wire” is directly after “the school,” it sounds like the school was made of barbed wire!

The school children saw a fence made of barbed wire behind the school.

 

In some cases, a modifier is sandwiched next to two words that could possibly be modified, creating an ambiguous meaning.

Jason told Alex immediately to call his mother.

Did Jason tell Alex immediately? OR was Alex to call immediately? We don’t know, so the sentence needs revising to clarify:

Jason told Alex to call his mother immediately.

Now it’s clear that Alex is to call immediately.

If the writer meant that Jason told Alex immediately, the sentence would look like this:

Jason immediately told Alex to call his mother.

 

Misplaced modifiers become more complicated when modifying phrases or clauses are placed between main sentence elements, as in the example below:

The cost of attending college, because of inflation and reduced federal support, has risen sharply in recent years.

This sentence is a bit awkward, as the modifying phrase is longer and more complicated. The sentence can be clarified by moving the modifying phrase to the end:

The cost of attending college has risen sharply in recent years because of inflation and reduced federal support.

The example below is also a bit awkward with the modifying phrase in between the subject and predicate:

Anthony could have, if he had not been arrested, played in the championship game.

In this example, moving the modifying phrase to the beginning helps to clarify the sentence:

If he had not been arrested, Anthony could have played in the championship game.

As you can see, misplaced modifiers can not only cause confusion for the reader, but can also sound quite ridiculous! Carefully read your sentences to make sure your sentences are clear and free of misplaced modifiers.


Now you try!

Can you identify the problems below? Reword the following sentences to correct misplaced modifiers.

  • Emma Sue was delighted when Mr. Nguyen returned her perfect calculus test with an ear-to-ear grin. 
  • Attached to the email, Charlotte sent her boyfriend Byron another photographic self-portrait with eerie red eyes. 
  • While Marina’s tail flopped against the wood, which was long, scaly, and metallic blue, she asked poor Tommy the reason for his pain. 

 

(exercises from http://www.chompchomp.com/modifiers01/modifiers01.01.htm)
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Improving Sentence Style

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Describing good style in writing is one of those things that is hard to explain. Like fashion sense or a winning personality, either you have it or you don’t. But you can learn how to improve your sentence style by following a few easy steps.

Avoid Using Vague Nouns

The words below are examples of vague nouns. Relying on vague nouns often leads to wordy construction, so it’s always best to avoid them if you can:

  • factor
  • aspect
  • area
  • situation
  • consideration
  • case

Examples

Vague: Consumer demand is rising in the area of services.

Precise: Consumers are demanding more services.

Vague: Strong reading skills are an important factor in students’ success in college.

Precise: Students’ success in college depends on their reading skills.

Vague: Photography took on new aspects during the Civil War.

Precise: The Civil War saw the advent of graphic battlefield photography.

As you can see in the examples above, the sentences become wordy and confusing when vague nouns are used. This often can impede rhythm in sentences, which hurts the flow. This means that the reader must slow down to read the sentence, which isn’t necessarily a good thing.

 

Incorporate Absolute Phrases

If you’ve ever felt your essay plodding along in a repetitive “subject/verb/object” order, you probably could use some absolute phrases to enliven your rhythm and sharpen your style.

What exactly is an absolute phrase? An absolute phrase is a group of words that modify an independent clause. Just as an adjective modifies a noun, an absolute phrase modifies an entire clause.

Example:

Her arms folded across her chest, Professor Smith warned the students not to text in class.

In the sentence above, the absolute phrase is at the beginning of the sentence – Her arms folded across her chest.

The clause, Professor Smith warned the students not to text in class, is an independent clause, which means it can stand alone as a sentence. The absolute phrase (a dependent clause) is modifying this entire clause.

Building Sentences with Absolutes

Absolute phrases can be arranged in different positions in a sentence. In the example above, the absolute could be placed after the independent clause:

Professor Smith warned the students not to text in class, her arms folded across her chest.

Absolute phrases can also be placed in the middle of a sentence, between the subject and verb:

(S)                                                                                         (V)
Professor Smith, her arms folded across her chest, warned the students not to text in class.

Note that the absolute phrase is set off in the sentence with a pair of commas.

 

Eliminate Wordiness

Do you ever get your essays back from instructors with such comments as, “tighten,” “condense,” or “wordy”? What this means is that you are trying to communicate your point with more words than necessary. For example, note the difference in

“It is the opinion of our professor that we have failed to meet his expectations.”

and

“We have failed to meet our professor’s expectations.”

The second sentence is tighter, uses fewer words, and is stronger and more direct. Just remember, if you can communicate your point in fewer words, do it. Less is more.

Consider the following redundancies in italics:

Ex. 1:

It is absolutely essential that all students meet with their advisor on a regular basis.

If something isessential,” can it be any more essential withabsolutelyin front of it? Probably not.

Ex. 2:

The advance preview of Transformers scored big at the box office.

You might have seen this one in film reviews, or even on E TV. If a movie is a preview, doesn’t that mean it is in advance of the release?

Ex. 3:

In my personal opinion, everyone could benefit from eating more chocolate.

Everyone, at one time or another, has at least said this, if not written it. So what is wrong with this example? If it is your opinion, isn’t it personal?

Ex. 4:

The final outcome of the Literature exam was better than I expected.

The outcome of something is always final, right?

These are all examples of redundant words that create inflated sentences. Carefully edit your final drafts to make sure you’re not redundant.

Avoid Dangling Modifiers

A modifier is a word (or group of words) that qualifies or adds to the meaning of other parts of the sentence. A dangling modifier is created when the modifier is joined to the wrong words in the sentence.

To correct, make the “doer” of the action the sentence’s subject, as in the example below:

Wrong: Coming over the hill, the barn was seen. Who saw the barn?
Correct: Coming over the hill, we saw the barn.

Wrong: Having arrived late for practice, a written excuse was needed.

Who arrived late? This sentence says that the written excuse arrived late. The possible revision might look like this:

Correct: Having arrived late for practice, the team captain needed a written excuse.

The main clause now names the person (the captain) who did the action in the modifying phrase (arrived late).

 

Choosing the best words to express your ideas in the best possible way sounds easy, but often is more difficult than we think. Improving your writing style may take some time and effort, but by following a few simple rules, your writing will become more readable and your style will be the envy of your peers!

 

(Sources: Purdue Owl, Essentials of English Grammar, writing.wisc.edu/Handbook.)

Don’t Dangle!

How to Identify and Fix Dangling Modifiers

Covered with hot melted cheese, we ate the pizza.
(Ouch! That hot cheese must have hurt!)

Smashed beyond repair, Bert saw his watch lying on the court.
(Poor Bert!)

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

We saved the scraps of meat for the dog that had been left on our plates.
 

   (How did the dog get on their plates?)

 

 

The hunter crouched behind a tree waiting for a bear to come along with a bow and arrow.

         (I’d hide from a bear carrying a bow and arrow too!)   

Can you identify the dangling modifiers in the examples above?

A modifier describes, clarifies, or gives more detail about something. In the examples above, obviously it was the pizza that had hot melted cheese, not the person eating it. Bert wasn’t smashed, his watch was. The scraps of meat were on the plates, obviously not the dog, and a bear can’t carry a bow and arrow.

A dangling or misplaced modifier, is a word, phrase, or clause that is improperly separated from the word it modifies or describes. This awkward wording can not only cause confusion, but is also quite often illogical.

How to Correct Your Dangling Modifiers

Misplaced modifiers can usually be corrected by moving the modifier to a more sensible place in the sentence, generally next to the word it modifies.

In the first example, move the modifier closer to what it modifies:

We ate the pizza that was covered in hot melted cheese.

In the second example, move the modifying clause closer to the watch that it modifies:

Bert saw his watch, smashed beyond repair, lying on the court.

How might you correct the others?

Sometimes, just one word can cause confusion, as in the misplaced modifier examples below:

Leaving the mall, Emily found a gold man’s ring.

 

In this example, Emily found a ring belonging to a gold man. Of course not, so just move the modifier, gold, immediately before the word it describes, ring.

Leaving the mall, Emily found a man’s gold ring.

 

 

How would you fix this example? Identify the modifier and the item it is modifying:

The torn woman’s coat lay on the seat.

To correct the misplaced modifier, move the object closer to what it is modifying:

The woman’s torn coat lay on the seat.

Be Careful of Altering Meaning

Take care when correcting misplaced modifiers that you don’t create two differing meanings:

The professor said on Thursday he would return our portfolios.

Did the professor say this on Thursday OR will he return them on Thursday?

On Thursday, the professor said he would return our portfolios.

Avoid these illogical (and amusing) mistakes by carefully proofreading your writing. Think about what you are trying to describe, and ask yourself if you have placed any modifying words are phrases in the best position in the sentence.

 Try correcting the dangling modifiers below. How did you do?

  1.  After having been run through the computer, the researcher used the figures for his report.
  2.  Returning after a year out of the country, my cat did not even know me.
  3.  I held the ticket tightly in my hand that my friend gave me.
  4.  After dancing solo on stage, the audience applauded Anna’s performance.
  5.  Totally destroyed by the tornado, he had to rebuild his barn. 
                                                                                                      (Sinclair.edu)

Do you have any amusing experiences with dangling modifiers? Share your goof – all in good fun!